Letter From Thailand II

February 25, 2014

  1. The wealthy businessman Thaksin Shinawatra was first elected in 2001. His fortune was built using family money and taking advantage of contacts he developed, a sort of cronyism that is de rigueur in Thailand. Thaksin built his political popularity with a populist program that extended virtually-free healthcare and low-cost loans to the poor rice farmers that make up a majority of the Thai population. This, and his checks on the traditional patterns of pilfering (which included things like stationing people at the numerous toll booths in Bangkok to count how many cars were going through and comparing that with the revenues coming in—guess what? They didn’t match), enraged the Bangkok-based bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie (the kratumpi yai and kratumpi noi), which are thoroughly vapid; Cornell University’s Benedict Anderson accurately described them as being like the bourgeoisie in other ASEAN countries: “timid, selfish, uncultured, consumerist and without any decent vision of the future of the country”). These Bangkok forces and its supporters in the south of the country (the so called “yellow shirts”—yellow being the color of the royal house) rallied to shut down the country, blocking the airport and other major points.
  2. Thaksin was charged with corruption, which is a massive farce in a country where “tea money” bribery is the name of the game, necessary for anything from driving a passenger bus through a military check point to opening a small business. The problem wasn’t “corruption” but that the new style went against the traditional patterns. Worst of all in the eyes of the Bangkok elite, Thaksin started getting involved in the appointment of generals in the independent Thai military (which has a duty defined as “protecting the country, the religion and the King”). This started a thinly veiled public feud with Prem Tinsulanonda, Head of the Privy Council of the King of Thailand and a former PM himself. Prem publicly complained that politicians were trying to bring the military under civilian control (!), describing “Thai democracy” in the following terms: “In horse racing they have the stable and the owner of the stable owns the horse. The jockey comes and rides the horse during the race, but the jockey does not own the horse. It’s very easy.” The owner in this case being the king, the horse being the military, and the jockey being the PM.
  3. The king and the military value stability—which means the preservation of the current system with them at the top—above all else. The unrest couldn’t be tolerated and Thaksin’s government was clearly unstable. Thus the military launched a coup against him, their first in fifteen years but fifth in 40 years. Protests and Thaksin’s party were banned and freedom of movement was greatly restricted. Thaksin went into exile. A phony civilian government was set up with Suthep Thaugsuban—a lifelong bureaucrat with a proven history of official corruption and cronyism going back to at least 1995—as deputy PM.
  4. Thaksin still enjoyed mass support from the majority of the country, namely rice farmers in the rural north, but also numbers of workers. They emerged as the “red shirts” and began to protest, despite the ban issued by the military. Their protests grew and grew. Owing to their class origins red shirts even began to make radical demands that went well beyond anything Thaksin ever proposed. The military cracked down hard and killed 90 protestors while Suthep and his “democratic” party (which hadn’t won an election since 1992 because it virtually collapsed after he was caught out giving land to wealthy families in 1995) were in charge of the temporary government. In 2008, a Thaksin-supported party called the People’s Power Party was also banned and dissolved.
  5. Elections were finally held in 2011. Thaksin’s cohorts re-formed under a new banner and won the elections handily. Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was asked to head the party and she did. One of her first policies was a populist scheme to buy the rice of Thai farmers at above-market rates. This outraged Bangkok’s upper classes once again and complaints began. The monied began withdrawing their cash from the state-owned Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives. Then in 2013 came an amnesty bill which would forgive all involved in the battles of the last few years, including Thaksin but also Suthep (who came up on charges of murder in 2013 for his role in ordering the attacks on red shirts, even though he still hasn’t been arrested to date). The bill didn’t pass, but it was enough to encourage opposition. Old yellow shirts came out to protest again while a federation of state employees and some farmers protested for not receiving the promised above-market rates for their rice. Suthep then resigned from the government and begin heading the outrageously-named “People’s Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State” which has been leading protests (that are now explicitly anti-Yingluck/Thaksin) since late 2013.
  6. Things got worse after November 20. The Constitution Court ruled out a proposed amendment to the constitution that would make the Senate an entirely-elected body (as it was before the 2006 coup) rather than a partially appointed one. Suthep’s democrats and its allies and constituents were understandably against the amendment since they are vastly outnumbered and unable to win via election. Thaksin remains the most popular PM in the history of Thailand, and his parties have won the last five elections handily. Yingluck’s camp rejected the ruling for the sham it was, but still pulled the proposal before it was to be handed off to the king to sign.
  7. Yingluck’s government has even less of a sure footing than her brother’s. It cannot rely on the military, but it’s also afraid to mobilize its base of workers and poor farmers for fear that they may go well beyond electoral politics and once again begin to raise radical demands as they did when Thaksin was ousted. Thus the anti-government protests have been allowed to continue and grow unabated, even though Suthep’s group represents a clear minority in the country. Thaksin has even publicly discouraged “red shirts” from taking any real kind of action.
  8. Yinglick survived a no-confidence vote in late November. Suthep’s people once again failed in parliament so they upped the extra-parliamentary activities in the street. By December 9, a cowered Yingluck voluntarily dissolved the government and called for new elections in February. Suthep’s group became even more emboldened and rejected the elections (which it knows it cannot possibly win—even America’s mainstream-bourgeois Time magazine said “Thailand’s ‘Democrat Party’ is Hilariously Misnamed”). It started a campaign to shut down the country and occupy government offices. Yingluck responded by withdrawing her caretaker government from its official buildings before finally declaring a “state of emergency” that is equally ignored by the military, police and Suthep’s protestors.
  9. Advanced voting was made difficult in Bangkok as Suthep’s forces converged on polling stations and “discouraged” people from casting ballots. In the north, voting when on without a problem. Suthep vowed to prevent the elections from going forward. His plan is to create an unelected “people’s council” which will control the country and have unilateral power to rewrite the constitution, and he won’t accept anything short of that. His followers have nothing but disdain for the majority of the population, and they aren’t ashamed of saying traditional concepts of democracy don’t work in Thailand because “the majority of people are too stupid to make the right choice” and/or “Thaksin bribes them into voting with cheap healthcare and rice buying schemes.”
  10. The majority of Thai people want the protests to end, as shown by numerous polls. The military would undoubtedly love to fall back on its old fail-safe method of the coup, but it’s not that easy this time around. Millions of Thais have voted for Thaksin-backed parties time and time again, and they are tired of seeing their votes discounted after the fact. Recently Kwanchai Praipana, a farmer who leads a large group of red shirts in Udon Thani in the North recently told reporters from Reuters: “We won’t accept them seizing power, if we need to divide the country then we will. We won’t send people to Bangkok to fight empty-handed.” The next day he was shot on his front porch, leaving him seriously injured.
  11. Regional differences are coming into play in a serious way. Beside the Isaan (northeastern region) and Bangkok divide between rural farmers and urbanites, there is also an emerging divide between the Isaan farmers who use old methods of cultivation and have already sold their rice to the government and farmers in the well-irrigated central regions, who harvest multiple times a year. Those farmers in the central region haven’t been paid for some recent harvests due to a lack of money and the crisis in government. They have joined protests and are blocking major roads with things like tire fires, though they are more worried about immediate payments than they are concerned with getting Suthep’s royalist council into power. They recently called off a tractor convoy headed for the airport at the last minute when Yingluck promised to pay them what is owed.
  12. Largely unmentioned in most commentary on the current situation in Thailand is the legacy of past struggles, with foundations in schisms that have not been resolved. The peasant-based Communist Party of Thailand waged an armed struggle in northeast Thailand starting in the 1965 (the CPT sided with China in the Sino-Soviet split and adopted a Maoist “people’s war” strategy in 1961) that soon spread throughout the country. In 1976, a student protest at a major university was smashed. This and the harsh military government that existed at the time led a number of students, urban workers and even social democrats of the Socialist Party of Thailand to go join the armed struggle in the countryside. This gave it a large boost. At the high point the CPT had 4 million supporters and more than 10,000 armed fighters. International splits damaged the party however. When Vietnam invaded Cambodia to oust the Khmer Rouge in 1979, China responded by invading Vietnam. Hanoi-friendly Laos then expelled the CPT from its bases of operation in the country. The CPT split into pro-China and pro-Vietnam/Laos sections. The Thai government on the other hand was building more and more trade and diplomatic relations with China, causing Beijing to lend less support to the CPT. Throughout the 1980s the party fell apart due to feuds, splits and defections. The last major blow came when the aforementioned Prem Tinsulanonda (now anti-Thaksin Head of the Privy Council of the King of Thailand, then Prime Minister General), offered amnesty to the “communist terrorists.” The end of the CPT did not however mean an end to the conditions that gave rise to it, as evidenced by the emergence of the “red shirt” movement in the former homeland of the party with its sometimes radical demands. Struggles like the current battle can be expected to continue as long as the rift between classes and regions remains.

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